Now and then the amusement industry gets scolded for its supposed failings in a very public - and unfair - way. A recent example was an opinion column penned by Pulitzer Prize winner George F. Will, arguably America's leading conservative pundit. Will wrote:
"Consider the television commercials for the restaurant chain called Dave & Buster's, which seems to be, ironically, a Chuck E. Cheese's for adults - a place for young adults, especially men, to drink beer and play electronic games and exemplify youth not as a stage of life but as a perpetual refuge from adulthood." Will went on to charge that America too often celebrates and promotes "a culture of immaturity among the many young men who are reluctant to grow up."
George Will may be correct that too many Americans are immature these days. But in targeting Dave & Buster's he misdirected his fire. The gameroom and restaurant chain positions itself not as an alternative to adulthood, but as an occasional refuge from the stresses of the workaday world. The chain's current slogan is "Escape into play." (As we have noted before: Will, who was born in 1941, is clearly not a member of the videogame generation.)
But you don't have to be an aging curmudgeon to have a low opinion of the amusement industry. Some of this industry's members would never be caught dead playing their own games. A few even regard amusement machines as "idiot separators" - as in, "a fool and his money are soon parted." Of course the better operators, distributors and manufacturers have more respect for their customers than that. It's their self-respect that's a bit wobbly. Many can't help harboring an uneasy feeling that amusements just don't provide much social value.
So, are they right?
Absolutely not. If some industry pros downgrade their own products, perhaps it's because they can't help thinking like workaholics (I plead guilty to this myself at times). But let's remove our "work is life; life is work" glasses. For a very different perspective, let's look at children in their own terms.
Did you know some kids get their only positive reinforcement from amusement games? They don't do well in school. Their parents constantly tell them they're nobodies. They're not skilled athletes or talented artists. But when they visit an arcade, they feel like winners for the first time. Playing a skill game and winning a fistful of tickets can help a kid realize, "Hey, I'm not a loser. I can be good at something ... I can develop skills."
The amusement industry also provides an invaluable service to countless families. I'll never forget the European father of two girls, ages seven and nine, who told me how much he envies Americans because we have family entertainment centers in every city. "When your kids reach a certain age," this dad explained, "it's hard to find activities you can do with them. They're too old for baby games, but I don't want to sit around passively watching a ballgame, movie or ballet. If I could take my girls to an FEC every week or so it would be wonderful."
Many years ago, President Ronald Reagan went out of his way to praise videogames. In 1983 Reagan said: "I recently learned something quite interesting about videogames. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye and brain coordination in playing these games. The Air Force believes these kids will be outstanding pilots should they fly our jets." Studies later confirmed this.
Some of the wisest members of the amusement industry very deliberately take a cue from Walt Disney. It should be remembered that Disney was not just one of the shrewdest and most successful business tycoons in history - he was also a marvelous ambassador for the wonder of childhood and the value of fantasy. Like Disney, such successful industry members as Amusement Consultants' Michael Getlan ("We create smiles"), Bromley Inc.'s Gene Cramm and Namco founder Masaya Nakamura built - or helped build - vast business empires based on the spirit of play.
Since this column began by quoting one intellectual who missed the point, let's end by quoting a far greater intellectual who got the point. Some 2,400 years ago it was none other than Plato, the king of philosophers, who told his overworked fellow Athenians: "God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God's plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live accordingly and play the noblest games ... Life must be lived as play."